Goblin Market


Last Sunday I heard Shirley Henderson reading Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. What a marvel. I first saw Henderson on TV in an adaptation of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. God knows how many years ago. She was like a wild animal, snarling, with a long curling mane of black hair. Fine black hairs dusted her upper lip. But it was her voice. A reedy, throaty, sometimes high, sometimes low, animal sounding voice. I’d never heard Rossetti’s poem before. I was made breathless.

Wind. It howls and batters. We’ll have it for five days at least, said the ex-Golf pro in Morrison’s. It makes me feels edgy. At night-time it frightens me. I am unsafe. The house rattles, its windows bowing and buckling. Will they burst?

We finished Mr Turner last night. Timothy Spall was stunning. As was ‘Jane’ from Midwife. Painting as compunction but not as a salve. There was comfort in Mrs Booth. She oo-ed and blustered around him. Mrs Booth, he said, you are a profoundly beautiful woman. He wanted to be remembered, now I will be a non-entity, he said on his deathbed. Have you seen his later paintings? Or even his sketchbooks. Profound beauty? Absolutely.

Four purple candles for Advent. Ready?

She talked about a wedding and funeral. There were three swallows trapped inside the church during the wedding. A jazz band followed the cardboard coffin as they carried it to the natural burial site. Then they had a ‘Jacob’s Join’ at the Village Hall. I only met his wife once. A glamorous woman, beautiful even. She gave me a lift from the station when Dad had hurt his knee. She reminded me of another woman from Cambridge. A neighbour. Contained emotions, fit to spill. She’s gone to Scotland to scream.

Archers soon, must fly. x



shoe sketchbook (1)

I can hardly hear her on the phone. Her voice is muffled, it trails off. But she is mid-flow, is laughing, and I don’t want to shatter her joy. We talk about Christmas. We both like the carols, don’t like the fuss. Do you send cards? she asks. We used to take round a sponge to our neighbours, she says, but they’ve mostly passed away now. Her tooth is still troubling her. Bye, Bach, she says.

Two men in the dark walking towards me, I can hardly make them out in the gloom. They’ve both got wooly hats on. Yeh, he’s banned now, one of them is saying, banned from The Angel. There is silence. And then the same voice, I can’t believe he said that.

I only have time for a list. A memo for tomorrow, maybe Sunday. I need to get it down. All these threads that may come to nothing but maybe, just maybe they will manifest. Here it is: Charlotte Bronte’s letters, handwriting copied on a light-box, the endurance of the men on Scott’s Antarctic expedition, Victor Borge and my mother laughing, laughing with my sister over Turkey fricassee, food and mothers, and what else? Advent, yes, advent. The saga over the purple candles. I am all about detail. Too much sometimes.

There is a misily rain outside. November rain. Have to go. Speak soon. Juggling plates. A sluggish writing day. Its never wasted, he says. Don’t judge. Not yet. Just keep writing. That’s all.



Mum as child (2)

They used to call them sea-pies. Oystercatchers. They look like pies when they stand squat on the sand. Turning into the stretch of promenade before South Marine Terrace, I disturbed them. A glut of them, hugging close to the sea wall. Hearing my steps in the dark, they started to hop about, moving closer to the sea. Becoming disorderly, pip-pipping, bobbing forward. I moved on quickly, not wanting to upset their slumber. Was it because of the storm that they came closer to land?

It was a wild night. The windows were bending, blowing inwards, I swear. And now all is calm. Gone. A perfect blue sky. Colder though. My fingers nipping with cold, even with two pairs of gloves.

We walked yesterday afternoon, even in all that wind. He didn’t want to but acquiesced. He always does. The sea, what a sight. A churning mass of chocolate brown fury, fringed with white. Bubbling with white. Frothing. It is so powerful. I catch my breath. There is nothing compared to it. So alive. So elemental. It forges its way to the shore, hurling stones, debris. The Perygyl was lost to water time and time again. Two students stood behind a movie camera on a tripod. Making a film. Freezing, stamping feet and chafing hands.

The early morning was silent except for the flump flump of my wellies. An occasional blackbird would dive down onto the pavement before me. A black shape darting. Then gone. No robins this morning. Too cold.

What a rich life. I am replete with it today. Grateful. Content.




We argued over socks. He swore and I sulked. It was over soon. It’s rare these days, generally we live peaceably with each other. A good marriage. A happy marriage. Just over-tired. They always say that don’t they, about children? We were being children then, weren’t we? It’s OK to be so every once and awhile. And the socks? They turned out to be just lovely. Thank you very much.

I have to make lists. Lists of thoughts, experiences, conversations. I write them on post-it notes when I get in from my walk, having chanted them to myself all the way home. Lest I forget. His office used to be covered in post-it notes. Telephone numbers, book references and things to do. Guaranteed that once written down they’d be forgotten. Guaranteed.

I want to remember, to preserve those little snapshots of something like life. The weather for instance. It dominates here. Always has. Wind, rain and sun. The wind the other day. Gusts of seventy miles off the sea. I couldn’t help laughing. Stop giggling, he said. We clung to each other. It pounded us. You feel winded. Literally. Three of the iron railings were uprooted. Just as if they were pot plants. Wrenched from the ground. And yesterday the rain, it was as if someone was just hurling buckets of water at our windows. You can understand our ancestors seeing strong weather as retribution from the gods. The glass rattled in its panes.

There was a hand-written sign in Merlin’s Cobblers and Key Cutting Shop. Closed today, it read, personal issue.

He is often there at his window smoking. It is still dark. I walk towards him, a little frustrated at feeling obliged to break my reverie. We talk about the weather, my walk. I wish him a good morning. It is 4.30 am and he is yet to go to bed. I like him though. There is intelligence, a wryness.

Two identical looking girls stand under a lamppost talking. It’s so much better living with someone, one of them is saying, much better than when I was alone.

A man is banging the flat of his palm against the glass-fronted door of the Ty Hafan Guest House. It is not yet 4.00 am. I find a pound on the ground, later there is a ten pence piece. A figure walks towards me out of the dark. I am safe in my defenceless, I whisper to myself. He walks on, coatless, the leather soles of his shoes sharp against the tarmac. The smell of baking bread from Slater’s Bakery comforts me. It still escapes even though the door is shut. A man is running down South Marine Terrace. He too is coatless, just a t-shirt. By the castle I see a girl. She is barefoot. I shine my torch on the ground, she scurries off. The wind is not so strong in town though The Angel sign creaks and swings.

From a distance I thought they were fairy lights. Coming closer I saw that they were the tricolour. The Belle Vue Hotel lit up red, blue and white. Nice touch. Solidarity. An elegant, restrained gesture.

I watch from the upstairs window as a cat leaps through a window.

It was unsatisfactory as a ending. I kept going over and over it in my mind. Would he have stayed? Really? Was it his child? Did he really sleep with her, after knowing that she was a murderer? I don’t know. Folk are strange. And marriage is compromise. The devil you know and all that. But it just makes you care less. That’s all. Should I read the book? I don’t think so. No empathy. Gone girl. Going, going. Gone.

I sent them off, into the ether. I don’t know. Are they good enough? Who knows. It would be nice but it is just ego stuff that. Mostly it is about sending them out, letting them loose to be something else. And that’s good isn’t it?

He gets back into the car and tells me that he’d just heard a man in Starbucks asking for a roll of toilet paper for the Gents. It’s rather urgent, the man had said to the blonde barista. It doesn’t bear thinking about, the girl had said to him as the man scumbled off loo roll in his hand. I like her, he said, she makes me laugh.

On the TV in the gym a woman in a tartan dress is talking about the Foundation for Peace. Prevention is better, she is saying, though I can only read the subtitles, the sound is muted. Prevention is what we are about. Yes. Amen to that.

I saw the moon yesterday. It has been a while. We are moving into the dark. Advent. I remember the Abbey lit up at the final moment, everyone holding their candle aloft as the great doors opened. I cried, from grief, relief and trepidation. Not now. Not now. My life is warmer now.


Wind (254)

2012-08-03 03.50.28

He tells me that it was forty years since he went to art school and now he’s painting again. He can’t get enough of it. He paints all day. He resents having to come into town. You come to the dentist, he says, you talk to people and before you know it that’s two painting hours lost.

Oh, ‘im, he says, they bought a painting of his of a chapel and gave it President Carter. His ancestors were from there. Was it good? I asked.

What does it matter? What does it matter? You do not have to be good, intones Mary Oliver, you just have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. He loves to paint, let it be.

Town was full of kids this morning. Early. 4.30 am chucking out time for the clubs. They were everywhere. Coatless and heedless of the wind. A chaotic queue of them at the fried chicken place on Pier Street, one of them shouting at a group of lads across the road. Down Great Darkgate Street and a young man is sitting on the pavement, his arms encircling the metal rod of a bus stop sign, his head bent over. Further down the street a young girl in a sleeveless dress is striding up the hill. The soles of my wellies slide in a mess of discarded chips and pizza slices. Pizza boxes, paper wrappers, cans and bottles are strewn across the pavements. The wind stirs up a sense of havoc. Post-apocalyptic. Down on the prom the mess is nature’s work. Sand and pebbles left by the high waves, crunch under my feet. A white plastic Aldi bag dances in the air.

I see her in the gym regularly. A tall, dark, gazelle-like girl, aloof and unsmiling. Dutch maybe, or Scandinavian. Certainly from Northern climes. The other day I said hello and she smiled. She brings her own yoga mat. The tall, dark, gazelle-like beauty with bruises on her arm.

Monet choose to paint in Etretat in November. Outside in the rain. The skies just grey. Once a wave came over and stole his painting away. Sisley died in poverty, bitter at his lack of success. So they tell me. And yet, he was good. Wasn’t he?

Walking into the wind is hard going. Sometimes I shout. Other times I succumb, leaning into it, against it. I remember our horses and the wind stirring, agitating them. Their manes flurried. Sometimes they would whinny and then canter hard around the field. The wind makes me feel alive.

Shall we walk today? The sky is still white. No sun. No break in the thick membrane of cloud. Sunday morning. Sunday morning.



One Day commission (angled view (2) 2014

The sky is milk-white. I can hardly see the rain, though I know it is falling for the roof tiles outside my studio window are shiny with wetness. A grey whiteness. And I am cold. I sit at my laptop, a hot water bottle against my stomach and a blanket wrapped around my knees.

The session this morning was cancelled. I thought it might be. It would be inappropriate to talk of such inconsequential things after last night’s happenings in Paris. I didn’t know till he told me at breakfast. I’d missed the radio news bulletins. How does it make you feel? I asked him over coffee. Feel? he’d said. Yes, what do you think of? How do you cope with such knowledge of such pain inside your head?

I know that I am not making much sense. His voice gets sharp. I usually cry then. I have not made myself understood. It’s something to do with standing in another’s shoes. I am compelled to do so. To feel what they are feeling.

Does it help? How can it help? I want to hold them, to touch. To love.

We talk about forgiveness. But what about punishment? he asks. Do you think they should be punished? This step brother, he continues, should he be punished? Of course, I say, but society must mete out the punishment not the individual. But what do I know? And who am I to dole out judgements? I do not want to. I just want to find a state of grace. For myself, for all.

We need to find a way to talk. For doesn’t it always come down to this, a need to be heard, acknowledged, understood?

Is there such a thing as evil? Is it separate from what we are?

Preparing breakfast I’d listened to the end of Jack London’s Sea Wolf. Wolf Larsson is dying but even in death he tries to choke the life out of Humphrey van Laden. It is so that I can feel alive, he says. His last muster of strength. The night before he dies Maud asks him about his soul. He is dismissive, Pah, he says. He loses the power of speech. They give him a pen and pencil. The next morning they find a crumpled piece of paper in his hand. Just one word written there. BOSH.

I told him. Serendipity, he said. Yes. It had been a crossword clue. Nonsense. I’d suggested bosh but he’d said, no, there’s no such word. It’s tosh. I’d relented. Not trusting my judgement. This morning I checked in the dictionary. Bosh = nonsense.

It gives me comfort. A kind of reaching out. Sometimes we are so far from home. That’s how it feels.

Writing my life is tough. I revisit it’s bleakness and I am made grey. It is inevitable. No walk today. I think I shall sleep. Sleep myself into a lightness. A light lovingness.




Business as Usual (Arnolfini Marriage) 2002 - Nigel Cassidy

I know it’s nonsense. A sugary kind of nothingness that is easy to watch after a long day. Snuggling up on his bed. With him stroking my feet. I know. But sometimes, even in the most cloying of TV nothingness there is wisdom.

We watch them through, the box sets. They call them costume dramas. The original books are usually weighty, important even. Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, Elliot’s Middlemarch.  But they are tinkered with, adapted for contemporary taste, lightened, sugared. It’s OK. They are easy on the eye, on the mind. We are almost through with Lark Rise to Candleford. I borrowed the book from the Library. A great tome of a book. Hardback. Much-borrowed. Some pages are falling out. It couldn’t have been more different. This is social history. The adaptation, a saccharin nothingness. Though the actors do their best. Linda Bassett as Queenie Turrill. Last night she’d been to Banbury Fair to sell her lace. I’ve been at the pillow since I were a little girl, she said. No one wants hand-made lace anymore. It’s all that machine-made stuff, now. She is thrown. I always saw the purpose before, she says to Ruby Pratt of The Stores, her hands crisscrossing the bobbins, now I only see the beauty.

Is creation still creation when there is no place for it? No one to buy it or even see it? Do we, can we create just for the sheer joy of it?

He is so cheerful. A truly contented man I think. A photographer by trade. I’ve known a few. And in so many cases they’ve been bashing sort of men. Not tender. And yet, their craft is a careful one, is it not? A patient one. All that waiting, that blowing away of dust.

I saw it shimmer in the light from the lamppost. Black sequins, the large ones. A skirt. A sequinned skirt. I could make out a skirt, and stocking tops with bare thighs. It was still dark after all. Not yet five am. There were two of them. I heard their voices first. They were arguing. Standing on the corner of North Road and Loveden Avenue. The skirt was tiny, a mini skirt. As I approached I saw it was a man. A man with a beard wearing a mini skirt. A sequinned mini-skirt.

If he doesn’t die soon they will have to move him out of the hospice. They are only allowed two weeks dying time there. But he likes it there. He is safe, he is cared for. Will they move a dying man? Disrupt this period of grace. She writes that she fed him bananas and custard. Nursery food. Baby food. Everything turning full circle. They have reached a state of grace those two. How potent death makes life.

The drugs are making him hiccup. He doesn’t understand.

I am having my feet done. I love her voice. Warm treacle. Syrup. The condition makes him so honest, she tells me. We’d gone away for the weekend and my husband needed a haircut. We were at breakfast and Dad said to my husband. David, he said, can I ask, is that a wig?

Have they moved him from the second floor?

Sian’s meant to be taking care of the weather in Aberystwyth, he told me over the phone. I think there is supposed to be some flooding along the sea front.

Ulster. That’s it. That’s the answer to the crossword clue. A long overcoat, ending in r. I found it. I asked and I found it. In Lark Rise to Candleford.

A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for. He quotes it a lot. I will try. I just want to send it out. These little pieces of something. He looks concerned. If it gives you joy, then fine, he says. Joy. There is joy in the making, certainly. One just has to learn to care less, that’s all. Care less. Careless.

I’ll try.



House, 2009 - detail

You’re only a writer when you’re doing it – at the point of the pen, said Alan Bennett on the radio yesterday.

Gosh, she’s plain, he said. That’s such a welsh thing to say. GOSH, she’s plain. Homely they call it in America. Your work is often described as homely the interviewer said to Bennett. Do you think that’s fair?

That vicar gets on my tits, he said as we got into the car. Why? I asked. He’s always scurrying about with his trolley and when he barges in front of you, or nudges you with it, he never says sorry. What’s he doing in the supermarket anyway, he said, he should be saving souls somewhere shouldn’t he? Scurry. I think about Richard Scarry. The writer and illustrator. I loved his books as a child. Spot the cat up the ladder or driving a fire engine. I think one of his books was my first library book. The first one I borrowed.

The sun is out, what a delight.

She sounded better, chattering away like a sparrow.

Some ancients believed that the wind was God’s voice. Sometimes in the early morning it seems so.

He’s got a flat over Gannet’s Bistro. He likes it. Is proud of it. Always the rolling stone, never setting down roots. Not properly. Leaving his stuff with friends, in attics, in spare rooms. Now he’s got this place they’ve returned them. Boxes everywhere, blocking the hallway. There isn’t room for it all.

He’s a bit of a bruiser, isn’t it? I said. I knew I was being uncharitable. I couldn’t help myself. He likes it when I am a little less good. Goody two shoes. That’s not like you, he says. I know. But it’s just a description. We are talking of the baby in the high chair. We’d just walked into The Granary in Hay-on-Wye for lunch. He was sitting with his mother at a table by the stairs. A great stocky child, his face covered in food. Not smiling but not scowling. Just staring. I tried to say hello to him, he said, but he was too busy putting food in his ear.

The mother brings him upstairs later to change his nappy. She beamed with pride. She loves him. She sees something else. Of course.

I am tired. Jaded from a lack of sleep. It is enough to tread water today. So be it. Amen



Ellen Bell: Photography by Simon Cook 01736 360041

But I want to be good.

To be kind. And yet, all too often I transgress. I am sharp, I feel my face pull itself into a grimace. I do not listen. I think an unkind thought. I am cold. Today in the gym, when the two women had moved my coat. What does it matter? I felt my snarl. I tried to recoup my warmth, smiled. Asked if I was in the way. But it felt like the damage had been done. A subtle coolness in the room. A chill.

I want to be kind. But sometimes I am weary. Weariness erodes my resolve. I know it. Writing makes me weary. Thinking too much makes me weary. Trying to understand the nature of faith makes me weary. Perhaps it is not about understanding some might say, but about being. Yes. I see that. But how? How can one be? How must one be?

Dust yourself down and start all over again. The song goes. Start over and over again.

I am so blessed. He returns me to myself. He dusts me down. Picks me up so that I can start again.

The bag woman was in again today. There was a door in one of the cupboards that wouldn’t shut. She kept pushing it, disturbed by it hanging open. I was too. We are no different, she and me. Or is it she and I? I never know. We need it just so. More and more as we grow old. Imposing some control over the chaos. I want to be kind to her, to me. And yet, I don’t make eye contact. Don’t, he hisses looking down, don’t or she’ll start talking at you. Why not? She is lonely, distrait, I think. She sighs. Pours a glass of water, then another. Her tread is heavy. All those bags.

A drizzly day with a milk-white sky. Let me be kind. Show me how.


Trundle Train

Ellen Bell: Photography by Simon Cook 01736 360041

She refers to it as serendipity. Isn’t seren the Welsh for star? Serendipity. We’d been talking about the Brontes and there it was a reading of a new Charlotte Bronte biography on the radio. Read by Hattie Monaghan. She played Eleanor in a recent TV adaptation of Sense and Sensibility and I saw her a couple of years ago on stage in London as Nora in The Doll’s House. She has gravitas as an actress. Is earnest, solemn even. I like her voice. The bit I heard the Brontes were endeavouring to publish a collection of their poems. They had to cover the costs. Two copies were sold. Worse than nothing, Charlotte wrote in her journal. Worse than nothing. She’d written to the poet Southey the year before. He’d encouraged her to quash all ambition to publish, to know her place, accept her status in life as a woman. Nevertheless, she had taken heart, he had not said her poems were bad.

Tenacity. You’ve got tenacity, said ‘The Beast’ as he leaned out of his window smoking a cigarette, going out in this. I must have my walk, I said.

The rain didn’t come till later. I had a dry morning walk. Though it was windy. Abigail is coming. The sign for The Angel pub creaked and whined as it swung back and forth. Down at the harbour the through road is lined either side with boats on bricks. Makeshift stilts, they look so unsure. Some of the boats are in a right state. Peeling paint, rust and sagging rigging. A sorry state. I’m glad they are out of the water. It’s like the lobster pots. All are safely gathered in. Anticipating winter. Battening down the hatches.

I saw two cats in the dark. One crossed Llanbadarn Road the other was on the promenade. They are not scared of the dark. Like me.

Sometimes I see coins on the pavement. Usually they are five pence pieces, sometimes a pound. Today I collected pebbles. Twelve of them. Off the prom. The sea had hurled them there. I create of a line of them on the window sill, like Kettle’s Yard. The outside brought in. I washed them. Do they still smell of the sea? Like shells?

They came in to talk about peace poppies. White ones. There had been a fracas last year. Everyone kept calling them pacifist poppies. No, she said, in her soft German brogue, they are peace poppies. They are to commemorate everyone who has been killed in conflict not just the fallen soldiers and armed forces. Everyone. We want to encourage the end of wars through negotiation, through diplomacy, she said. We spoke with the Legion and found we had much in common. I’m glad.

No hands and no feet. I remember the Grimm’s fairy tale. The Silver Hands. She has her hands cut off so that the Devil can’t take her. She is given false hands fashioned from silver. This woman had become ill, her extremities growing sceptic. So brave. So strong. Really. What lives I encounter through the radio. She is waiting for a transplant. A double-hand transplant. Can you imagine? I am humbled. Our hands and feet – they carry us through, help us to make sense of the world. I wish her a speedy recovery. Though what she has learnt through her trial must be immeasurable. In the story the girl’s hands grow back. I wish her well.

Walking home I hear the train. The trundle train I call it. A slow train. A rolling, meandering train. Chugger, chugger. No whistle. In the summer there is a whistle. A whistle from the steam train. At three o’clock in the afternoon. A nice sound. A gentle sound. A summery sound.

Outside my studio window the rain is lashing the panes. Spitting hard. There is a Paul Simon song about raindrops on a window pane. Melancholic. Gorgeous. There but for the grace of you go I, it ends.

Take care, he said, it would break my heart. Mine too, my love. Mine too.